CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Regulators examining Enbridge Inc’s (ENB.TO) proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline to Canada’s West Coast will consider a harsh U.S. assessment of the company’s handling of a huge Michigan oil spill in hearings after the project’s critics feared they would not.
The Joint Review Panel has asked Enbridge to provide the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s report into the 2010 rupture of Line 6B near Marshall, Michigan, which derided the company’s early response to the incident that became the costliest onshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Comments by the NTSB characterizing Enbridge staff as “Keystone Kops” when dealing with the first indication of the rupture and a series of subsequent oil spills on Enbridge’s system have put the company on the defensive as it seeks approval for the C$6 billion ($6.1 billion) Gateway pipeline against opposition from environmentalists and several British Columbia native groups.
In a series of information requests, the panel asked Enbridge to provide copies of the NTSB’s synopsis and final report, issued last month, outlining the cause of the incident and the lengthy period in which oil leaked into the Kalamazoo River system as well as conclusions and recommendations.
It also asked for a table linking the preventative measures the company has promised for Northern Gateway and the NTSB’s specific recommendations, according to the information request posted on the National Energy Board’s website. The JRP said it wants the information by September 4.
The U.S. report said oil leaked into the Michigan river system for 17 hours as staff stopped and restarted the flow after the first indication of a drop in pressure in a pipeline that had been suspected to be vulnerable to rupture. The NTSB said there was a “culture of deviance” at Enbridge where personnel were not adhering to approved procedures and protocols.
Some 20,500 barrels of crude spilled, and cleanup and repair costs from the incident have hit C$800 million.
Media reports in recent days suggested that the Joint Review Panel, made up of officials from the Canadian Environmental Assessment agency and the NEB, was excluding the NTSB material after two intervenors in the hearing demanded it be entered.
However, panel spokeswoman Annie Roy said procedure dictates that new evidence in the proceedings must be entered by parties that contributed to its production and could answer questions about it. The intervenors could not do this, so the panel directed the request to Enbridge.
“The panel felt that they wanted to ask Gateway to file this report and answer questions regarding past measures that they’ve taken in light of the conclusions, and what they intend to do with that report,” Roy said.
The oil industry and governments of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Alison Redford see the 1,177 km (731 mile) pipeline as a major part of a strategy to diversify markets for growing supplies of crude derived from the Alberta oil sands in efforts to increase economic returns.
The line would ship 525,000 barrels a day to a port at Kitimat, British Columbia, where it would be loaded onto tankers and shipped to lucrative markets in Asia and California.
However, the project’s critics say risks of oil spills across the rugged terrain and in coastal waters are too high, and seized on the Michigan incident report.
In July, the company said it was adding safety measures to Northern Gateway that would increase its costs by C$500 million. They included increasing the thickness of the pipe walls, increasing the number of shut-off valves and other items.
Enbridge said it welcomed the opportunity to respond to the request and explain improvements it has made since the Michigan incident.
“We’ve built a control center, we’ve increased resourcing in leak detection, we’ve heightened our pipeline integrity programs and so we’re looking forward to the opportunity to speak to these,” Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier said.
Editing by Jim Marshall